Archive for June, 2009

The Battle of the Christian Life — Galatians 5:16-26

Chapter 5 Verse 17:

What is the “fingerprint” of your flesh? A key word in this passage to express the function of the flesh is “desire.”  Our flesh expresses itself through desire.  This word should not (based upon its Greek meaning or the context of the passage) be given a strictly sexual or sensual meaning.  How would you summarize the two to three desires that most often lead you into sin? We should be able to answer this question as quickly as we give our phone number if we are serious about doing battle with our flesh (in a day of automated memory cell phones and PDA’s that buys some of us a little time).  Being able to answer this question will help us feel a bit less “ambushed” when the enemy’s attack comes over the same wall again.

Chapter 5 Verses 19-21

Eight of the fifteen “works of the flesh” mentioned are strictly relational sins (hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, and envy); many of the others are commonly practiced in social contexts.  Why would Paul’s list focus so much on the social aspect of life is the Christian life if a personal relationship with God (loaded question, I know)? Remember it was just five verses ago (5:14) that Paul said the whole law is summarized in the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  It appears that Paul is trying to bring conviction regarding the well used phrase, “You know that wasn’t really me talking.”  When I speak fleshly words it is “me” talking (Luke 6:45).  It is “me” following my flesh (see question about characteristic desires).  It is “me” saying my desires are more important than the Second Great Commandment.  Until we recognize that our words do reveal our heart we will spend most of our time trying to put to death the flesh of our spouse, kids, parents, family, friends, co-workers, boss, and acquaintances.  We will miss (or dismiss) the majority of what God intends to do in our lives.

For an interesting read on this subject consider the blog entry “An Interesting Quote from Eugene Peterson on the Trinity” for a page and a half reflection on the role of how our wants, needs, and feelings drive our relationships.

Chapter 5 Verses 24

“A Crucified Flesh”

“Maybe Paul doesn’t really know me after all.  My flesh doesn’t seem that dead.”  Has that thought crossed your mind as you read this verse?  If not, skip Galatians 6, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and read I John 1:8.

I believe there are at least two significant marks of 21st century American Christianity, which account for this struggle.  It should be noted every culture in every historic era has and will feed sin in some way.

First, we mistake shame for repentance because we believe we are good people who sometimes do bad things.  As I go through my day, it looks like most people have it together.  I know more of my “flesh” thoughts than anyone else’s.  [Note, some people use this to build pride instead of shame.]  From this when I “feel bad” for my shortcomings it is as much embarrassment as it is conviction.  I fear not measuring up to social norms and peer expectations more than God’s character.  Repentance is remedied at the cross.  Shame is remedied (unsuccessfully) with positive self-talk, denial, distractions, shopping sprees, and other shame-building activities.

APPLICATION: Embrace the freedom of repentance and faith over shame.

Second, we believe that we are supposed to crucify our individual flesh individually and therefore fight the majority of our battle in private.  The majority of the works of the flesh are social.  The fruit of the Spirit are most often expressed socially.  Why, then, do we try to engage the crucifying of the flesh and the feeding of the Spirit privately?  Read Hebrews 3:12-14.  Let it challenge how you seek to live out Galatians 5:16-26.

APPLICATION: The courage (faith) to live in the light (Body of Christ) is a key way God drives the darkness (flesh) from our heart (guiding desire).

An Interesting Quote from Eugene Peterson on the Trinity

The following excerpt is taken from Eugene H. Peterson’s book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids; 2006) pages 31-33.  It is a lengthy quote and may need to be read several times, but it speaks with great clarity (at least in the mind of this blogger) to the times in which we live.  The bold-faced, under-lined, and italicized text have been added to Dr. Peterson’s work to add emphasis to the portions this blogger believes capture the essence of texts meaning.

“Here’s how it works. It is important to observe that in the formulation of this new Trinity that defines the self as the sovereign text for living, the Bible is neither ignored nor banned; it holds; it holds, in fact, an honored place. But the three-personal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is replaced by a very individualized personal Trinity of my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings.

We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. We have a few years of apprenticeship at this before we are sent out on our own, but the training begins early. By the time we can hold a spoon we choose between half a dozen cereals for breakfast, ranging from Cheerios to Corn Flakes. Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly. We are soon deciding what clothes we will wear and in what style we will have our hair cut. The options proliferate: what TV channels we will view, what courses we will take in school, what college we will attend, what courses we will sign up for, what model and color of car we will buy, what church we will join. We learn early, with multiple confirmations as we grow older, that we have a say in the formation of our lives and, within certain bounds, the decisive say. If the culture does a thorough job on us – and it turns out to be mighty effective with most of us – we enter adulthood with the working assumption that whatever we need and want and feel forms the divine control center of our lives.

The new Holy Trinity. The sovereign self expresses itself in Holy Needs, Holy Wants, and Holy Feelings. The time and intelligence that our ancestors spent on understanding the sovereignty revealed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are directed by our contemporaries in affirming and validating the sovereignty of our needs, wants, and feelings.

My needs are non-negotiable. My so-called rights, defined individually, are fundamental to my identity. My need for fulfillment, for expression, for affirmation, for sexual satisfaction, for respect, my need to get my own way – all these provide a foundation to the centrality of me and fortify my self against diminution.

My wants are evidence of my expanding sense of kingdom. I train myself to think big because I am big, important, significant. I am larger than life and so require more and more goods and services, more things and more power. Consumption and acquisition are the new fruits of the spirit.

My feelings are the truth of who I am. Any thing or person who can provide me with ecstasy, with excitement, with joy, with stimulus, with spiritual connection validates my sovereignty. This, of course, involves employing quite a large cast of therapists, travel agents, gadgets and machines, recreations and entertainments to cast out the devils of boredom or loss or discontent – all the feelings that undermine or challenge my self-sovereignty.

In the last two hundred years a huge literature, both scholarly and popular, has developed around understanding this new Holy Trinity of Needs, Wants, and Feelings that make up the sovereign self. It amounts to an immense output of learning. Our new class of spiritual masters is composed of scientists and economists, physicians and psychologists, educators and politicians, writers and artists. They are every bit as intelligent and passionate as our earlier church theologians and every bit as religious and serious, for they know that what they come up with has enormous implications for everyday living. The studies they conduct and the instruction they provide in the service of the god that is us, the godhead composed by our Holy Needs, Holy Wants, and Holy Feelings, are confidently pursued and very convincing. It is very hard not to be convinced with all these experts giving their witness. Under their tutelage I become quite sure that I am the authoritative text for the living of my life.

We might suppose that the preaching of this new Trinitarian religion poses no great threat to people who are baptized in the threefold name of the Trinity, who regularly and prayerfully recite the Trinitarian Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, who begin prayers with the invocation, “Our Father…,” who daily get out of bed to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior and frequently sing, “Come Holy Spirit, heavenly dove. . . .”

But this rival sovereignty is couched in such spiritual language, and we are so easily convinced of our own spiritual sovereignty, that it does catch our attention. The new spiritual masters assure us that all our spiritual needs are included in the new Trinity: our need for meaning and transcendence, our wanting a larger life, our feelings of spiritual significance – and, of course, there is plenty of space to make room for God, as much or as little as you like. The new Trinity doesn’t get rid of God or the Bible, it merely puts them to the service of needs, wants, and feelings. Which is fine with us, for we’ve been trained all our lives to treat everyone and everything that way. It goes with the territory. It’s the prerogative of sovereignty (pg 31-33).”

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Theology and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.

Moving Our Priorities Beyond First, Second, Third

From time to time we all think about priorities.  Usually when life is getting a little out of control and we know something is going to have to give.  When we think of priorities we often think in terms of “rank.”

Let’s say, for conversation’s sake, we have a husband (Steve) who is trying to get his time priorities back in line.  He knows he wants to love God will all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength by managing his relationships and activities in biblical manner (the charts below are Steve’s attempt to determine what loving God looks like in practice).  So he sits down and lists his priorities and ranks them.  He creates something that looks like chart 1.

Item

Rank

Wife

1

Children

2

Job

3

House/Recreation 4

This is good chart.  Most of us would applaud Steve for having things in the right order.  However, there is a false assumption embedded in the chart.  When we prioritize things by rank we often assume each item is equidistant from those things above and below it.  In Steve’s case we would assume the “value” score (out of a total of 100) would look like chart 2.

Item

Rank

Assumed Value

Wife

1

40

Children

2

30

Job

3

20

House/Recreation

4

10

If this were the case Steve would spend twice as much time with his wife as he does at work and three times as much time with the kids as he does working on the house or personal recreation.  This is why we quit making lists of our priorities.  Life just will not cooperate and the list never seems realistic.

I believe it is more accurate and effective to conceptualize our priorities in terms of a “value rank” system.  Steve would still list his key relationships and activities.  However, before ranking them he would assign them a value based on a total 100 score.  From these value scores, Steve would then identify the rank of each item and seek to manage his life accordingly.  This would look like chart 3.

Item Value Score Rank
Wife 35 1
Children 32 2
Job 23 3
House/Recreation 10 4

Whether you agree with the numbers or not, please follow the concept.  There are varying distances between successive ranks.  If we added more items, then the difference in value would become more pronounced.  We could make it a bit more complex by discussing how work is a way Steve provides for his wife and kids, but we won’t go there now.  We will seek to make two points of application.

First, we will look at how value scoring changes the way we think about sin.  Let’s say in Steve’s stress he takes up internet gambling.  He is spending time and money that should be devoted to family on his new “hobby.”  Steve is also gambling at work.  In a simple rank system (see chart 1) everything would just get dropped one place (chart 4).

Item Rank

Gambling

1

Wife

2

Children

3

Job

4

House/Recreation

5

Steve could probably quiet his conscience with this logic.  “It’s not that bad.  My wife is still second.  My kids are still third.  How far off can I be?”  We could answer Steve many ways, but let’s keep looking at the concept of priorities.  If we walked Steve though a value scoring system (see chart 3), he would see the reality of his sin much clearer (chart 5).

Item Value Score (Previous Score) Rank

Gambling

40   (0)

1

Wife

10   (35)

4

Children

18   (32)

3

Job

27   (23)

2

House/Recreation

5   (10)

5

In order for gambling to become number one it has to accumulate the necessary number of value points.  This significantly shuffles all the other numbers.  Work also jumps because of the increased need for money.  The kids take priority over the wife, because she “nags” about money and housework.  We can begin to see the mess sin makes of life even before the life altering consequences of sin begin to emerge.  It makes sense why the two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40) are commands of priority (love) not prohibition (thou shall not).

Second, let’s also use this concept to see perfectionism more clearly.  The perfectionist can utilize the value scoring system to see reality in a different way.  Let’s say Steve never started internet gambling, instead he is simply trying to earn his #1 Husband, #1 Father, #1 Employee, #1 Yard, and #1 Golfer mug all at the same time.  In this case, Steve would view his “rank” score simply as a matter of order.  Which relationship or activity do I master first, second, third, and fourth?  He would not see his error until he created a value score (chart 6).

Item Rank Value Score (Perfection)
Wife 1 100
Children 2 100
Job 3 100
House/Recreation 4 100

If Steve cloned himself three times (equally 4 total Steves), then this chart would be great!  However, Steve is faced with the reality of being a finite human bound within the restrictions of time and his current season of life.  God has only called Steve to perform at the level of excellence that can be achieved in a 168 hour week (or 672 hour month) based upon Steve’s abilities, resources, season of life, and opportunities (managed within biblical priorities).

So what is our take away from this discussion of priorities? Hopefully, we have found a way of thinking about priorities that allows us to avoid both minimizing our sin and stressing out about perfection.  In addition, I hope we have gained a greater a more practical understanding of why Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets (the Bible) hangs on having our priorities (loves) in the right order.  If we have done that much, we have equipped ourselves to study the Bible more practically and with a motivation of worship.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Character” post which address other facets of this subject.

Communication with Our Desires “On the Table”

Communication is hard, especially “in the moment.”  It is one thing to be convicted by a sermon on the power of the tongue or the way our words reveal our heart.  It is another thing to be “in the moment” with your spouse (child, sibling, parent, friend, co-worker, enemy, etc…) and to have the awareness, self-control, courage, and humility to acknowledge what is ruling your heart and change the direction of the “discussion.”  That is the purpose of this article, to help you “in the moment.”

The battle begins with awareness.  You must be able to answer the question: what is it that consistently rules your heart?  Do not say, “Nothing.”  Whenever we sin, we are loving something more than God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  In addition, we are loving something more than our neighbor—usually self.  It is fair to say that for most people this “something” usually orbits around a particular theme: peace, respect, affirmation, appreciation, fairness, order, predictability, status, power, influence, affection, etc…

If this is a new thought for you, or if you have trouble identifying your “something,” take this opportunity to read Ken Sande’s excellent article “The Heart of Conflict.”

Once you know your heart theme, you are a step closer towards being ready “in the moment.”  The next step is to humbly confess to your spouse that this is the theme of much of your sinful actions during conflict.  If you are unwilling to confess to your spouse when you are calm and “out of the moment,” it is unlikely you will repent and change when this theme has activated your defensiveness and self-justification.  This confession might sound something like this:

“Snoochums [or your preferred pet name], I have recognized that when I sin against you in conflict it is usually because I want appreciation [or your “something”] more than I want to honor you in that moment.  Appreciation is important, but not more important than treating you with love and honor.  When I raise my voice, call you names, give you the silent treatment, distort your words, walk away, change subjects abruptly, make false accusations, and things like that [make statements that reveal your conflict patterns], I am punishing you to try to get appreciation [or your “something”].  That is both wrong and ineffective.  I am committing to trying to see and acknowledge that in the midst of our future disagreements.

Now that you have your “something” (as Ken Sande would say “idol”) identified and acknowledged it to your spouse, you can put your imagination to work.  What object best represents this “something” to you?  There are no right answers here, so long as the object is not offensive or inflammatory.  For our case study moving forward we will say there is a husband (Bill) whose “something is order and is represented by his PDA and a wife (Sue) whose “something” is affection and is represented by a heart-shaped pillow.

Bill and Sue have a conversation that begins to go nowhere fast.  Bill remembers his confession above and asks Sue to sit at the table for the talk.  They acknowledge their thematic idols, commit to honor one another in the conversation, and say a quick prayer for God to give them awareness of their own hearts as they work towards unity and agreement.

Bill goes to get four items to bring to the table: two copies of a picture of them as a couple, his PDA, and a heart-shaped pillow.  Each spouse sits down with a copy of a picture in their hand and their item on the table in front of them.  The rules are simple.  If either begins to communicate with dishonor (raised voice, calling names, silent treatment, distort the other’s words, walking away, changing subjects abruptly, making false accusations, etc…), they must put down the couple picture and pick up their “something.”  This is visualization of their heart at that moment.  In that moment of dishonor, they are discarding the marriage for their desired “something.”

If they pick up their desired object, they are faced with a choice: repent or harden my heart.  Hopefully they will see the sinfulness and foolishness of their choice.  Neither order nor affection will be attained through dishonor.  As they see this, the offending spouse should put down their object, repent to his/her spouse, pick up the picture again, and ask to resume the conversation.

Once the conversation is culminated the couple is ready to see the Gospel in their marriage (Ephesians 5:32).  However, culminated does not mean resolved.  The conversation may have only reached a stopping point or a point of agreed mutual reflection.  But it did so with honor.

Here is the Gospel in this moment:

And he [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”  (Luke 9:23-25 ESV)

Bill and Sue have denied themselves and been willing to lose their life (or at least that “something” they had centered their life upon).  At this point, Bill can pick up that heart-shaped pillow, hand it to his wife with a hug and a kiss, and affirm to her that he has loved her as himself.  Sue can pick up Bill’s PDA, hand it to her husband, and affirm to her husband that their marriage is moving towards a place of sustainable order.  In their willingness to die to self and lose their life they have saved what is most precious.  In effect, this process of conflict resolution can be as much a picture of the Gospel as baptism or the Lord’s Supper.  We can see the Gospel enacted and participate in the drama (that is what an “ordinance” is) in our homes with each conflict.

This is hard!  But it is worth it!  It is the battle between our flesh and the Spirit (Galatians 5: 19-26).  But this methodology gives us tools to allow biblical insight to bear fruit “in the moment” of conflict.  Acknowledge your heart to your spouse.  Place your heart on the table in the midst of the conflict.  As the conflict unfolds, maintain honor so that the two of you can encourage one another with the Gospel truth “whoever would loses his life for my sake will save it.”

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Communication” post which address other facets of this subject.

Living in Light of the Gospel — Galatians 2:15-21

Chapter 2 Verse 16:

When you sin what do you do to “help” the “stink” of sin wear off? Often we treat sin like a bad perfume or cologne. We believe that God is turned off by its presence on us and we want to make ourselves more presentable before we come to Him in prayer. We develop our habits or rituals to make ourselves more presentable (i.e., spending time with our kids, being nice to our spouse, withdrawing from people that make us feel guilty, giving extra to the church, reading our Bible extra, beating ourselves up repeatedly, etc…). These are activities that when we use them to make up for our sin Paul would consider “works of the law.” What habits do you have? How did they develop? How have they replaced embracing God’s grace? How have they eroded your joy in things that should be a blessing?

Chapter 2 Verses 19-21:

“Handling Ongoing Guilt”

The question is frequently raised, “How do I handle ongoing guilt?” Often it is said, “You just need to forgive yourself.” There are at least two reasons to be leery of this answer. First, our sin is against God and a violation of His will not self (Psalm 51:4). Second, there is no passage in the Bible that commands, teaches, or provides an example of self-forgiveness. If forgiving myself was essential to good mental health, the Bible would not have left it out.

There are many things a struggle with ongoing guilt can reveal. This handout does not attempt to deal with them all, but to provide a general outline.

First, we deal with guilt by accepting God’s grace by faith. Our sin is as bad (or worse) than we think it is. However, the price has been paid in full. Rehearsing forgiven sin is like trying to make payments on a car that has already been paid off.

Second, we worship and accept/correct the consequences of past sin through our acts of faith and thanksgiving. We must not believe that the forgiveness of sin means the removal of consequences. Forgiveness means the relational barrier between us and God has been removed.

If we get these two backwards we are trapped. We begin to work in order to ease our guilt and then try to muster enough faith to worship. Because working off guilt is impossible we never feel like we are in a place to worship or good enough for God.

If you struggle with ongoing guilt, at first do not do anything. Action before embracing the reality of forgiveness will inevitably result in “works of the law.” Also, do not repent over and over again. Instead, pray thanking God for his complete forgiveness with a heart of “I believe. Help my unbelief (Mark 9:24).” God is patient and more concerned that you understand the cross than His is needy (blasphemous word) for your service. Then, out of the relief and joy that emerges, love people, study God’s word, and offer the lost the hope you have found.

False gods & False Teachers — Galatians 4:8-20

Chapter 4 Verse 8:

“By Nature Are Not gods”

How can you be a slave to something that does not exist?  You bypass the question of truth and skip to the question of pragmatics.  Can this (which is not what I believe it to be) get me what I want?  If I begin to dream of the life I want and can imagine this thing giving it to me, I will serve it!

Didn’t this tendency die out with the advent of science?  No!  Do we really still do this?  Absolutely!  This is the daily, moment-by-moment functioning of the human heart.  We long for things and look for ways to attain them.

What are the modern things to which we become enslaved?  In the list below rank the items on a scale of 1 to 10. (1 least compelling; 10 most driving).

_____ Approval of Others
_____ Affection of a Loved One
_____ Power, Influence, Position
_____ Education & Knowledge
_____ Popularity
_____ Entertainment (non-boredom)
_____ Peace & Order
_____ Accomplishments
_____ Money & Nice Things
_____ Other: __________________

These are the kind of things that we tend to build our life around and think, “If only I had more of this my life would be complete.”  When we begin to base our contentment, security, identity, or confidence around one of these items we begin to make them our functional god.  They begin to determine right and wrong; worth my time and not worth my time; hope and despair.

“But, wait a minute, these things are not bad.  I thought idols had to be evil or false.  These things are good and real.”  You are right on the last point.  These things are real and good.  But you are mistaken on the first point.  To be an idol all something has to do is to take God’s place in our lives.

Begin to recognize what you elevate to the level of God in your life. Then your goal is to submit it (not eliminate it) to “the one who by nature is God.”  The items in the list above are good desires but cruel masters.  As idols, they make promises of fulfillment they can never keep.  Monitor your levels of anxiety, depression, guilt, planning, hoarding, secrecy, and daydreaming regarding these items.  When one of these levels become intense you likely need to take Galatians 4:8 to heart.

Chapter 4 Verse 17:

“The Danger of Isolation”

Galatians 4:17 (NIV)
“Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good.
What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.”

Isolation is a sign of danger in both relationships and religion.  When a relationship, teacher, or organization begins to ask you to leave behind most or all of your relationships you should be very leery.

Isolation Red Flags (not meant to be exhaustive)

  • Being asked to isolate from Christian because they are Christians
  • Being asked to isolate from family for non-moral reasons
  • Being asked to not participate in same sex social outings
  • Being asked to not socialize with “people who do not like me”
  • Being made to feel guilty or demanding to come on normal social outings (i.e., grocery, post office, family reunions, etc…)
  • Posing your relationship as an all-or-nothing (i.e., “If you want to be in relationship with me, then you will not talk with [name].”)
  • Being threatened about reporting or confronting illegal or immoral activities

Effects of Prolonged Isolation

  • Increases the influence of the controlling person or organization
  • No outside relationships by which to measure “normal”
  • “Facts” of the controlling person or organization cannot be verified
  • Legitimate and good social outlets/resources begin to feel threatening
  • Self-doubt increases due to social awkwardness and fear

Life in the Family of God — Galatians 3:26-29

To help you in understanding “Relating to God as Father” I have sermon available.  This message was originally delivered to a youth audience, but should be applicable to all ages.

Sermon by Brad Hambrick on MP3 “Knowing God as Father” (please “right click” and select “save target as” to download the MP3 file).